It was two years ago, County Councilmember and Germantown resident Craig Rice had dropped his then third-grade daughter off at the bus stop at Richter Farm Road and Rockingham Road in Germantown. As Caelyn Rice ran toward the bus something made her stop, it was a white sedan, and it was moving fast — too fast. It flew past the stopped school bus and would have hit young Caelyn had she not been paying attention.
“As I dropped Caelyn off at her bus stop,” said Rice, “a car passed through the school bus stop arm and almost hit her. Fortunately, she was able to remember to make sure there you stop and look both ways, even when the school bus arm out and lights are activated. As a parent, I certainly understand what is at stake. This is about our safety.”
Caelyn Rice, who is now a rising fifth grader at Matsunaga Elementary School in Germantown said, “I saw this car speeding down the road. I didn’t know what he was doing. I thought he was going to stop, but he didn’t, and the stop sign was out. I was thinking is this guy going to stop or is he going to hit me. I didn’t know what was going on. It was kind of a scary experience.”
Thankfully nobody was injured in this instance, but this instance of drivers passing school buses happens far too often in Montgomery County, and MCPD and MCPS have teamed up with to work with FXS Company to end it. FXS Company specializes in producing a comprehensive video and audio system designed to assist in the enforcement of overtaking and passing stopped school buses as well as enhancing the safety of the occupants of school buses.
"As our students head back to school next week, getting them to and from school safely is paramount," said Councilmember Rice. "I am very pleased that our long-term goal is to install cameras on all of our school buses. It's not about generating revenue; it's about obeying the law. If you see a school bus stop arm out, just stop. The safety of our kids is first and foremost."
As many folks are thinking of Summer’s last hurrah the weekend before school starts on Monday, August 29 the Montgomery County Police Department and Montgomery County Public Schools want to remind every one of the dangers that can be associated with the excitement of a new school year as MCPS begins bussing 159,000 students to and from school every day.
Officials from County government, the school system, and the Montgomery County Police Department joined forces at the Lakelands Park Middle School in Gaithersburg to provide critical back-to-school safety information.
Rice was joined by new Superintendent of Schools Jack R. Smith, Board of Education President Michael Durso, and Director of the MCPD Traffic Division Captain Tom Didone, Director of MCPS Department of Transportation Todd Watkins, and school bus driver Jennifer Velasquez.
“The start of the school year is just a few days away,” said Michael Durso, president of the Montgomery County Board of Education. “For far too long, we have seen many drivers overlook our students who ride buses by speeding past stopped school buses. As a community, we must take all the steps we can to keep them safe.”
“Our mission is to ensure that all students are learning in our 204 schools. But first, they have to safely make it to our schools. The responsibility for their safety belongs to all of us in this county,” said Smith. “The very first thing we have to pay attention to is student safety so that our core mission of teaching and learning can be realized for every single student. It is the responsibility of all of our one million-plus citizens if they are drivers it is absolutely critical that the 159,000 students and the additional 60,000 students that ride their bike or walk to school are safe every day.”
On January 2, 2014, Montgomery County began the implementation of an automated school bus camera enforcement program with 25 cameras that could be strategically deployed throughout the County as needed. In the first two and a half years of the program approximately 4,800 violations were recorded by the cameras.
On June 30, 2016, the County changed school bus camera vendors from Xerox to FXS. Their product is currently being used in Texas, Louisiana, Virginia, and now in Maryland. By the Monday, August 29 — the first day of school — FXS-equipped buses will begin service in Montgomery County, and within 18 months, it is expected that up to 500 buses will be equipped and in service. In the next three years, all of the County’s 1,200 buses are scheduled to be protected by cameras.
“With the amount of violations those 25 cameras recorded, we knew we had a significant problem that was absolutely unacceptable,” said MCPD’s Captain Tom Didone. We will soon have four times as many cameras as we had in the previous two and a half years of enforcement. While our goal is voluntary compliance, expect to receive a citation in the mail if you disobey the law.”
Over the last two years, the County’s School Bus Camera program caught 4,800 people who had illegally passed a school bus and received citations with just 25 cameras, said Didone. “That number is alarming and completely unacceptable. We recognized the fact that there were some drivers that selfishly put their own needs ahead of the safety of our kids. We have far too many drivers that can’t see this big yellow school bus because they are focused on talking or texting on their cellphone,” said Didone.
“We have a lot of drivers that don’t understand the law,” said Didone. “If you see a school bus stopped with its red lights on and stop signs out. You must stop. If you are not sure if you should stop. You should stop. If the only thing between you and the school bus is paint on the roadway. You must stop.”
“Every year we have about six to eight crashes involving children walking to or from school,” said Didone. “A lot of times it is the kids being kids. They are not paying attention, but we as drivers need to expect the unexpected.”
MCPS buses are illegally passed hundreds of times every school day, according to MCPS Transportation Department Director Watkins. “While the school bus industry has a great track record for keeping students safe, I look forward to the renewed automated enforcement effort. The reality for me is that every illegal passing event is a potential life-changing tragedy for students and their families.”
The FXS company provides a comprehensive solution to enhancing school bus safety by providing many additional features that have not been available in the past. As well as the enforcement cameras located outside the bus, there will be exterior cameras mounted on the front and rear of each bus which can monitor suspicious activity in proximity to those areas, and assist in collision investigations. School buses will also have cameras inside the bus that can record audio as well as video to which school officials can gain real-time access in the event of an emergency. FXS also provides a Global Positioning System (GPS) for each bus; that will enable the tracking of its location.
When approaching a stopped school bus with activated flashing red lights, Maryland law requires that motorists traveling in the same direction as the bus must stop and remain stopped until the stop sign and lights are de-activated. The law also requires that motorists approaching the bus from the opposite direction must stop UNLESS there is a physical barrier, such as a median.
Jennifer Velasquez, a Montgomery County school bus operator, who has been driving a school bus for 14-years urged drivers to obey the stop signs an
d lights on the school bus. “The drivers, all the bus operators, really stress themselves out every single day,” she said. “We have to worry about kids running in the street if the cars are going to stop, and we have to worry about all the other children in the back of the bus also. We are looking everywhere. Please, drivers, all you have to do is stop. We drive the precious cargo every single day; please stop when the stop sign is activated.”
School buses equipped with automated cameras are activated and record a vehicle passing a stopped school bus with flashing red lights. Those camera-captured violations are reviewed by the police department’s Automated Traffic Enforcement Unit, and citations are mailed to the registered owner of the vehicle. The fine is $125.00. No points are associated with a citation issued through the camera enforcement program. The fine for a citation issued by a police officer is $570 and can result in a driver receiving three points on a driver’s license.
“When a driver passes a stopped school bus with red flashing lights, it is often because he/she is uninformed with regard to the requirements of the law, is impatient, or is distracted,” said Didone. County government, law enforcement, and school officials are dedicated to continuing public education in an effort to gain voluntary compliance. However, with the greatly expanding number of enforcement cameras on County roadways, distracted or impatient drivers can expect many thousand more camera-generated citations to serve as deterrents to continuing this very dangerous practice.
Top: Montgomery County Councilmember Craig Rice and his daughter Caelyn Rice flanked by police officers and County and MCPS officials.
Next: The new cameras from FSX company which have been installed on many MCPS school buses and all 1,200 school buses will be outfitted with the new systems over the next three years.
Next: Captain Tom Didone address the media at today’s presentation about school bus safety as Montgomery County students go back to school on Monday, August 29.
Next: The new cameras have the ability to record traffic in both directions.
Next: School Bus Driver Jennifer Velasquez urged drivers to obey the stop signs and lights on the school bus.
Photos by Germantown Pulse.